Steve Dawson could never be accused of shirking his homework when it comes to expanding his musical horizons.
The Vancouver musician, producer, record label founder and songwriter was an acknowledged expert on most of the stringed family when he decided a few years back to pursue the pedal steel guitar -- a deceptively challenging instrument and one of the few that he hadn't already mastered.
So, armed with a government grant, Dawson approached pedal steel master Greg Leisz -- an American musician whose work has appeared on albums by Joni Mitchell, Beck and Wilco -- and hunkered down for months to obsess over the finicky ins and outs of the instrument.
"I liked the process of learning and was really drawn to the idea of a steep learning curve," says Dawson, in an interview from his home in Vancouver.
"I find with the guitar, I don't really learn like I used to when I was a kid. I wasn't sitting down and every day coming up with something new." The education was so in-depth, that Dawson was eventually able to base an entire album around his pedal steel prowess. The all-instrumental Telescope will be released later this year. Earlier this month, Dawson released Waiting for the Lights to Come Up, a song-based album that explores an entirely different set of his talents Having two albums on the go is not surprising given Dawson's busy schedule and artistic restlessness.
It's all a matter of being ruthless with those demanding his time and focusing on the task at hand, he says with a laugh.
Dawson will be returning to Calgary on Sunday for a CD release show at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Hall.
The show will focus on Waiting for the Lights to Come Up, an album that keeps Dawson firmly planted in the Canadian blues/roots community he has helped create over the past 10 years.
In the 1990s, Dawson became frustrated when approaching major labels about a less-than marketable collection of acoustic instrumental tunes he had recorded with long-time collaborator Jesse Zubot.
When enough doors had been slammed, he decided to create Black Hen Records to release the disc.
A decade later, it remains one of the most powerful forces in Canadian blues and roots music, boasting a roster that includes everyone from gospel group The Sourjourners to accordion-wielding ex-punk rocker Geoff Berner.
As creative director, Dawson produces a good number of the new releases on the label. That, combined with his sideman duties with artists such as Jim Byrnes and Kelly Joe Phelps, places him in good company when it comes to soaking up songwriting tips.
"People like Shuyler Jansen, Kelly Joe Phelps and Jenny Whiteley are pretty top-notch songwriters," he says. "They all have their own styles. But one thing I do notice with those people and others I work with is that they are not afraid of simplicity in songs. That's one of the stumbling blocks of myself and others who keep trying to make songs more clever and crafty. I noticed that good writers write really simple songs. They are much harder to come up with."